In regards to Author: The JT LeRoy Story, let’s see if we’ve got this straight. In 2000, the novel Sarah was published as the work of JT LeRoy, an HIV-positive trans teenage sex worker and heroin addict. LeRoy’s subsequent books, as well as his purported life story, struck a nerve with the reading public, and the author was catapulted to a certain level of fame, including book tours, a movie deal, and the adulation of fans. Eventually, “JT LeRoy” was revealed to be the creation of Laura Albert, a San Francisco resident writing under a pseudonym. Albert was reportedly found guilty of fraud for signing a contract using the LeRoy name. She now publishes under her own name.
That’s the bare bones of the JT LeRoy/Laura Albert story. But that version is a little like saying that there’s no such thing as Harry Potter or the Easter Bunny, or that Arthur Rimbaud was a mixed-up French kid who loved to travel. There’s more to the tale than that, and Jeff Feuerzeig’s new documentary is ready to supply the details, as Feuerzeig views them.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story arrives on the big screen a year and a half after another LeRoy doc, Marjorie Sturm’s The Cult of JT LeRoy. That an imaginary juvenile-delinquent-turned-literary-persona could justify two full-length film profiles is a testimony to the spell Albert’s “avatar” cast over the narrow but vocal demographic pie-slice that made “Jeremy Terminator LeRoy” a best-selling author in the first place. We recommend seeing both docs, in no particular order — the Sturm film is available on home video — and sorting through the twists and turns with a bit of healthy skepticism and a sense of humor.
The Feuerzeig film essentially takes Albert’s point of view, with home movies and imaginative animated “flashbacks” inserted into an account of the LeRoy phenomenon. In common with her alter ego, Albert had an unhappy childhood and was well acquainted with suicide hotlines. It was in telephone conversation with San Francisco psychologist Terrence Owens that Albert evidently first floated the persona of JT LeRoy. Using a convincing southern-fried accent, “he” related his ordeals as a gender-uncertain truckstop trick baby. Early on, Albert concluded that “I need to keep it in fiction” because listeners seemed supportive when JT went into his rap. Owens suggested writing as therapy, and suddenly the genie was out of the bottle. Albert wrote the books and played JT on the phone and in written correspondence; adopted a faltering British accent to portray JT’s manager “Speedie” when needed; and enlisted her live-in boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop and his half-sister Savannah Knoop to play other important parts in public, including the elusive, androgynous figure of LeRoy himself (impersonated by Savannah), for a growing schedule of book readings and appearances. As Albert explains it, JT was able to succeed where the real Laura – overweight, neglected, and self-conscious — could not.
To its later chagrin, the New York Times was the first prominent media outlet to bite on the transgender teenage Southern junky proposition, with the 1997 mention of a “new voice.” Soon, book people were falling over themselves looking for new metaphors to describe this writer’s wonderfulness. So were reviewers. Then celebrities. Hipsters, scenesters, and heat-seekers flocked to JTL in large numbers, among them Lou Reed, Calvin Klein, Mary Gaitskill, Jeremy Renner, Asia Argento (she made a JT LeRoy movie, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things), Gus Van Sant, Tom Waits, Courtney Love (naturally), and the ubiquitous Bono. They compared JT to everyone from Jean Genet to William Faulkner.
Both docs take advantage of embarrassing footage of gushing celebs, but The Cult of JT LeRoy also lets us hear the testimony of rank-and-file true believers, many of whom were crushed when the charade was finally revealed. With its manufactured connection to AIDS-era sympathy, the LeRoy story manipulated the good will of lots of well-meaning people, and they tearfully come forward in the Sturm film. The do-gooder thrill of adopting and “rehabbing” a stray, spoiled by the news that it was only make-believe, caused hurt feelings all over, especially in the LGBTQ community, where JT supposedly dwelt. People felt used. Cult postulates that Albert had perpetrated scams before (phone sex, etc.), and that the “writer hoax” was only the latest. “Multiple personalities”? No, suggest the talking heads, she was just hustling. Cue angry villagers and massive denial.
There’s no contrition in the Author doc. Laura Albert narrates her life story as a participant who’s been magically granted limited liability. JT was presented to news media as an actual person, but to Albert the “author” was just another of her Barbie dolls, alongside Speedie and “Emily Frasier,” the lead singer (played by Albert) of the rock band Thistle. Of course it’s not a crime to write a book pseudonymously — just don’t sign legal contracts with the fake name. In her defense, which takes up a large portion of Author, Albert invokes the concept of fantasy role-playing. À la Tinker Bell, “If you don’t believe, the magic can’t fucking happen.” Gradually, the Feuerzeig doc reveals Albert’s levels of self-deception, the layers of competing identities. In one remarkable aside, Albert admits that she became jealous of JT for hogging the spotlight.
So why didn’t Laura Albert pursue a literary career under her own name? “No one would believe me” is her excuse. Her final naked plea: “I know it is not a hoax.” Well, yes it was. Albert was found guilty of fraud and ordered to pay $350,000 in damages. But her odd career has a silver lining — both documentaries serve up a juicy cautionary tale about the machinery of idol worship. Never fall in love with a hustler. That’s the definition of a trick.